"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Predictable Failure of School Improvement Grants

In the second annual data dump on the eve of the anniversary of the assasination of President Kennedy, the Duncan administration has again announced the disappointing results of its School Improvement Grant (SIG.) Once again, the SIG's failure is being released in the "take out the trash" end-of-the-week news dump.

In retrospect, I was naïve about the SIG and its roots. My experiences teaching in the inner city, and in participating in whole school and whole system reform were crystalized by Mass Insight's "The Turnaround Challenge." In 2007, I saw it as one of the most profound analyses that I have encountered in education, or any other subject. Secretary Arne Duncan also proclaimed the document as "his bible."

So, how did Duncan’s SIG turn out to be the antithesis of "The Turnaround Challenge?" Or, should I ask whether the SIG was just the antithesis of what the funders of the study, the Gates Foundation, claimed to support.

At the risk of being dismissed as continuing to be naïve, I wonder whether lessons will be learned by the SIG’s disappointing results.

Mass Insight's masterpiece (or should I say its seeming masterpiece) stressed the need for the "Three Cs," Control, Capacity, and Clustering. A commitment to build capacity before rushing ahead with "quick fixes" was common sense. Clustering, which could deter schools from "creaming" of the easy-to-educate students and dumping the harder-to-educate students on neighboring schools, sounded like a godsend.

My only concern with the Three Cs was Control. Even when the object to be controlled was teachers, however, "The Turnaround Challenge" was very moderate in comparison to Duncan's subsequent reforms. The purpose of Control was not "wholesale change" of teachers in struggling schools, but the ability to remove the small number of "culture killing" staff who might impede efforts to change the way the school operated. The document advised restraint in asserting power over teachers because "one of the constraints in exercising any authority over people is due to concerns over supply of talented new staff."

Moreover, "The Turnaround Challenge" asserted that, "the ecology of high-poverty schools is inherently much more unpredictable, variable, and irregular. ... This turbulence is foundational; lying below symptoms like poor teaching and student misbehavior." It concluded, "students and staff in high-poverty schools face more curveballs in a week than their colleagues in low-poverty schools see in a year."

The best part of the document was the "Readiness Triangle." It explained that "turnaround is, at its core, a people strategy." The triangle emphasized the need to address poverty, discipline and engagement, and creative responses to "constant unrest" in troubled schools. A foundation must be laid to extend the school day and year to build close student-adult relationships, to offer "personalized instruction based on diagnostic assessment, and flexible time on task," and to create a "teaching culture that stresses collaboration and continuous improvement."

"The Turnaround Challenge" indicted "NCLB's unfulfilled impact" as a "classic example of unintended consequences. NCLB wrongly rushed efforts to turnaround at scale. The law failed to address the "perfect storm" of "individual and family risk, community and environment effects, and resource inequality." The document endorsed a "rounded engaging curriculum," while acknowledging the additional "stressors" that could be added through more testing. Finally, "The Turnaround Challenge" proclaimed, "no buy-in [by teachers], no reform."

I will admit to being suspicious regarding one point. Mass Insight clearly supported the autonomy of principals, without mentioning the autonomy of teachers and students. At the time, however, it never occurred to me that reformers would grant autonomy to principals by taking it away from teachers. Surely, the authors of such a thoughtful report would affirm the need to reach a balance between principals' control of the building and teachers' control of their classroom.

My question is how did a commitment to building capacity and a warning about the rushed pace of turnarounds, morph into Duncan's campaign to turnaround 5% of the nation's schools before they even had a chance to plan their work, much less invest in readiness. How did an explanation of why high-poverty schools are fundamentally different turn into a series of one-size-fits all federal mandates? How was an affirmation of collaboration and teacher buy-in used to justify the mass removal of educators? How could Secretary Duncan read "The Turnaround Challenge," with its defense of an engaging curriculum, flexibility, diagnostic assessments, and a suspicion of standardized testing, as being consistent with the mandates that test score growth be used for high-stakes evaluations?


  1. The mechanism working to use "collaboration as a means to justify the mass removal of educators" is called "words-mean-what-we-say-they-mean" - timely for me, indeed... A veteran teacher with a history of top evaluations, I received a letter of concern last week alleging that I had not been collaborative during a meeting of our un"professional learning community" No investigation, in fact, the union rep there had strongly suggested and succeeded in having the copy in the letter amended to include the word "alleged." Of course I have been trying to reach out and work with others, but collaboration can only happen when there's trust, collegiality and administrative accountability. Wonderland.

  2. Grace,

    You nailed it.


  3. Anonymous4:51 PM

    My elementary school just received the SIG grant... feeling uneasy... feeling as if my classroom will be run by someone in an office, and I will be a puppet.

    1. This will likely happen unless you and your colleagues present a solid front. Don't be alone, build resistance together.